PRINT November 1994


DAY AND NIGHT, KASPER KOENIG is on the move. You see him at openings, at art fairs, on panels. It sometimes seems that wherever anything’s happening in contemporary art, Koenig is there—looking into new trends, shaking hands with old friends, ferreting out new artists. It is difficult to come up with anyone better informed about the international art scene.

Instead of pursuing a university degree, Koenig began his adult life at sea, working on a boat—a temporary diversion from his intellectual interests. After serving as an assistant on one of the Documenta exhibitions, he came to the U.S., and by 1968 he was working with Andy Warhol at The Factory, putting together an exhibition of the artist’s work for the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. In the ’70s Koenig spent several years in Canada, where he taught at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, in Halifax, and founded the college’s now well-known publishing program. In 1978 he returned to Germany and began staging the large exhibition projects that have made him internationally known. The best-known of these are “Westkunst” in Cologne in 1981; “Von Hier Aus” (From Here Onward) in Düsseldorf in 1984; the “Skulptur” exhibition in Münster in 1987, and “Der Zerbrochene Spiegel” (The Broken Mirror) in Vienna and Hamburg in 1993. He is currently the dean of the Städelschule in Frankfurt, and director of the School’s Portikus exhibition space.

Noemi Smoelik

NOEMI SMOLIK: You are an art-school dean, an internationally known curator, and you sit on a lot of influential art-world committees. How does one get into such a position?

KASPER KOENIG: I only sit on committees when it interests me—not for strategic reasons but out of curiosity. I can afford to do this because my job at the Städelschule, where I’ve been for seven years, and before that at the Düsseldorf Akademie, affords me a measure of independence. The deanship in Frankfurt is temporary; one is elected by a combination of the faculty and the students.

NS: How did you get interested in art?

KK: It was a product of circumstance. I was originally more interested in architecture, landscape architecture, and then in film. But I came to contemporary art at the start of the ’60s because it was unbelievably open then.

NS: You don’t have a traditional education. Did the 12 years you spent in the U.S. and Canada stand in for that in some way?

KK: Yes, on the one hand I do have a different resumé from most of my German contemporaries, and on the other I did spend time in America, where I experienced American pragmatism. Americans are always very object- and goal-oriented, even when they’re dealing with complex subjects, such as the apparent paradox between artistic, poetic, and utopian goals and their concrete realization.

NS: Your first big show after your return to Germany was “Westkunst.” What was the exhibition’s intention, and why that title, which some thought presumptuous?

KK: The title was a pun on the word Weltkunst [World art], and was meant as a conscious distortion of the kind of imperial ideology that we now consider old-fashioned. In addition, insofar as it evoked what then had been the reality of Europe since 1939—the division into West and East—it had a contemporary, political meaning as well as a historical one. So the focus suggested by the title wasn’t some kind of “regionalism.” The focus of “Westkunst” was artistic innovation; the artwork was at the center. Our concern was to bring certain qualities and positions into view. It was a presentation geared to the international scene, and intended to make assertions.

NS: Such as?

KK: We were concerned with the idea that Modern art, rather than being exhausted, had entered a second phase, and also with the idea that important art is always the exception and never the rule. The show was directed against the illusion that art can be digested as a life-style.

NS: The next exhibition you worked on, a site-specific-sculpture exhibition in Münster in 1987, posed exactly that question of the public’s digestion of art.

KK: In 1977, when Klaus Bussmann curated “Skulptur,” an exhibition in Münster that was a historical overview of Modern sculpture, I had been responsible for the contemporary section, which presented site-specific sculpture. It had occurred to both of us that the American artists in the show had treated the question of art in public spaces much more nonchalantly than the Europeans had. The exhibition ten years later pursued this question of the purpose of art in public space. You have to see this show in relationship to the earlier one. And then you have to look at this city, which was almost four-fifths destroyed during World War II, and then after the war was reconstructed to give people there the feeling of still living in an old city. Actually, of course, it’s only an echo of what it was. This situation was taken up by artists from other contexts—California, England, Spain. I grew up in Münster, so the show had a personal aspect to it as well.

NS: That exhibition seemed to raise a question: how much of a public does art require?

KK: On the deepest level, I’m not exactly sure whether art needs a public in that sense at all. I’m not a great defender of art in public places—quite the contrary, I’m skeptical, as were many of the artists in that show. Yet it was important in Münster that a group of artists addressed the question. And there was a lot of controversy: the inclusion of Jeff Koons, for example, was incomprehensible at the time to certain German artists.

NS: What does “public” mean to you?

KK: The concept of “public” only functions in connection with its antithesis, “nonpublic,” or “private.” I think the idea is still a rather 19th-century one. A television talk show today, for example, combines public and private, projection to an audience and a simulation of intimacy.

NS: In connection with public space, you often speak of art’s “conflict potential.” Where does that potential lie?

KK: First of all in art’s ability to complicate ideas and to call for confusion in daily political terms. It’s always questionable to subordinate art to extraartistic purposes; that means art itself isn’t radical any more—it just maintains an art-world status quo.

NS: Yet, you always emphasize art's political, social, and economic dimension.

KK: Yes, but not from any illusion that art can change society. Rather, I work from the idea that art is always self-reflexive. That's what gives it social relevance.

NS: Your next exhibition, “von hier aus,” focused on art of the ’80s. What criteria informed your selection?

KK:Von hier aus” had its ironic side. I had signed a contract to produce an exhibition of West German art, and had to do it quite fast. But the way the problem was posed seemed dubious to me: I wanted to avoid a nationalist viewpoint completely. I had a lot of space—an industrial building of over 100,000 square feet. So I had the idea of an imaginary city. The participating artists would imagine the housing they wanted in this city, which would then be realized in the exhibition. Hermann Czech was the architect.

West Germany isn’t cosmopolitan in the way that New York or Paris is—there are a lot of decentralized hubs. I went to Munich, to Stuttgart, to Karlsruhe. From any given stylistic tendency or particular generation, I chose just two or three artists. I wanted to present a variety rather than a value judgment. That may have been why the show was vilified by some critics—they said it looked like a post-Modern amusement park.

NS: In “von hier aus” you were concerned with neither a direct social context, as you had been in Münster, nor with a historical overview. You were looking at “autonomous” art. What does that mean to you?

KK: That as a curator, an intermediary, one does justice to individual artists and their works. And I mean that not symbolically but materially, and in terms of design: that there is a relationship between outlay and result, that the work’s reality is indivisible from the idea behind it, that its intellectual and emotional dimension is duplicated in its realization.

NS: A lot of curators, though, seem not to work as intermediaries but to see themselves as artists of a kind, and their exhibitions as a sort of Gesamtkunstwerk.

KK: I don’t see myself as an artist. I think the curator’s opinions are relatively uninteresting, and that one really can’t use art to demonstrate them. I try to have a professional relationship to artworks—to be open and interested, and to try to produce new relationships, but only in order to articulate the artwork.

NS: What function do your exhibitions serve? Actually, what function do you see art serving?

KK: One can imagine art’s function only through experiencing art. That experience is always social: an artwork’s reception is to a large extent dependent on society. But it’s also individual. At any moment, any number of ways of receiving the work are possible. One can’t speak of the function of art, really, but only of the functions of individual artworks and contexts. The possibility of making an instrument out of what artists do interests me—an instrument that makes a contribution to a social field.

NS: Your most recent exhibition, last year’s “Der zerbrochene Spiegel,” was an all-painting show here. Were you retreating from any claims for the broader field of art?

KK: Absolutely not—I saw the show as a moment of reflection within art. “Der zerbrochene Spiegel” developed out of an anthology that Hans Ulrich Obrist and I edited in 1992, for which various artists and writers were asked to create works on the topic of the “public view.” The printed page itself was the medium here; reproductions of existing artworks were excluded. With “Der zerbrochene Spiegel” it was the opposite. The fact that there are artists who paint even though they think painting is obsolete is particularly striking when those artists are working for the printed page, and this led me to organize an exhibition dealing exclusively with artists who paint. At the Städelschule I often come across students who are interested in theoretical questions about art yet who don’t want to give up the convention of painting pictures. This contradiction interests me a lot. “Der zerbrochene Spiegel” wasn’t a retreat at all—it seemed to me a rewarding question to pursue, a question not only of art’s theory but of its practice.

NS: This is a time of general unease. The utopian projects of Modernism are long abandoned, and we don’t know where things are heading, as you once said an art-school professor should have the courage to admit. Wasn’t “Der zerbrochene Spiegel” a conservative reaction to this unease?

KK: It would be presumptuous to think one knew where things were going. But the question of what was and what will be is of course extremely important. It’s interesting to me that there are many serious artists who think a lot about art history yet still work painting.

NS: You were interested in being the director of the upcoming Documenta exhibition in Kassel. How would you have approached that show?

KK: I didn’t campaign for the job, but of course it would have interested me. I would have tried to address the totally altered social, political, geographic, and economic situation in Europe and particularly Germany. The Documenta exhibition would have been a particularly good forum for this discussion, because as an institution it was extremely important for postwar Germany after the oppression of the Nazis.

NS: The Documenta series certainly arose out of the political situation of Germany’s defeat. One must ask, in fact, what meaning it still has today.

KK: Yes, it’s a postwar phenomenon, originally intended to create the simulation of a cosmopolitan space within Germany, so that the young people of this shattered country could experience a sense of international solidarity. The exhibition’s supporters, believed it was nonsensical to punish the young after the Holocaust; it was important to create a feeling of openness and possibility. In time, Documenta became a large institution, with more and more corporate underwriting and media noise. So I would have been interested in trying in a way to scale Documenta down a notch, using art to suggest a new sense of the future reflecting the history of the collapse of a repressive utopia quite nearby. (Kassel is very near the old East German border.) I would have moved the Documenta institution away from its character as event, deflated it a bit. That would have meant looking at some art that in the final analysis may prove to be of interest to minorities, such as artists—though I wouldn’t, of course, have opened up the show to everyone.

NS: You seem convinced that Documenta still has meaning.

KK: I don’t think you’re asking the right question: Documenta only has meaning if it’s newly defined, if its content is reexamined.

NS: Documenta has a large international following, but it is always directed by one person to whom it grants extraordinary power. You’ve talked about the ethical problems of such positions.

KK: As a curator I evaluate artists’ work according to whether they make compromises and whether they assume responsibility for their work. I find that process completely legitimate. I don’t believe one can do justice to art through committee decisions. The decisions must be clear and understandable.

NS: You yourself have a lot of influence in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. You have a position of power. Does that responsibility worry you at all?

KK: No, I’ve always been able to stop myself from becoming cynical about what I’m doing. As soon as I get anywhere near cynicism, I stop and do something else. Perhaps this sounds naive, but that’s the way I see it.

NS: How do you recognize a moment in art?

KK: You have to have good friends, who make you aware of it. And of course contact with artists—young artists—is important. Those kinds of contacts, I hope, keep me in touch with reality.

NS: You make decisions about artists every day. Do you ever have doubts?

KK: My confidence comes from my curiosity. My program at Portikus since 1987, from the first exhibition, of Dieter Rot, up to the 59th, of Tony Oursler, is the best answer.

Noemi Smolik is a writer who lives in Cologne.

Translated from the German by Charles V. Miller